Systems at fault in April Valdez Terminal spill identified

This aerial photo shows several layers of oil spill boom containing the oil while workers cleaning up the spill.
In this May photo, several layers of oil spill boom can be seen in place around the Valdez Marine Terminal’s small boat harbor. This is where the sheen of spilled oil was first discovered in April. Photo courtesy of Alyeska.

On April 12, a sheen was reported near the small boat harbor at the Valdez Marine Terminal. Investigations identified the source as a sump which overflowed. The primary causes of the spill have been identified as the failure of a check valve and a level indicator.

The check valve became clogged with debris.

A level indicator was not functioning. This failure also kept the high-level alarm from activating.

While the level indicator should have prevented the incident, human error also played a factor. A technician conducting rounds did not verify the sump level due to a headlamp failure. This action had the potential to prevent or reduce the volume of the spill.

What happened?

When the systems are working properly, rainwater from the nearby area drains into the sump, which is then pumped into the terminal’s industrial wastewater system. That wastewater system empties into the ballast water treatment system.

The investigation showed that the check valve became clogged with debris at an unknown point and was unable to fully close. This allowed oily water from the ballast water facility’s pipes to flow into the sump.

The level indicator in the sump was supposed to sense rising liquids and automatically turn on the sump’s pump when the liquid level reached a certain height, to pump out the excess liquids. Because that level indicator failed, the rising oil and water mix overflowed the sump.

Discovery, containment, and cleanup

The sump was identified as the source of the spill within a few days, however the pathway the oily water took from the sump to the water took time and extensive excavation to discover.

Photo shows Council staff member collecting water samples near the spill site.
Council staff member Austin Love collects water samples near the terminal after the April spill. Photo courtesy of Alyeska.

When the systems failed, the oily water seeped through the soils around the sump and entered an old drainpipe, which directed the spill into Port Valdez. The pipe had been installed before the terminal was built to prepare the site for its construction. It was later buried and forgotten until Alyeska discovered it while investigating the spill’s path.

Oil continued to seep into Port Valdez until the end of April as oil already in the ground worked its way to water. In early May, a temporary pipeline was completed, which captures the seeping oil and redirects it to the ballast water treatment facility. No more oil is reaching water, however cleanup on land is expected to continue through the fall.

The spill and subsequent cleanup activities did not impact the tanker loading berths and oil shipping continued throughout the incident response.

All responders have been required to adhere to safety guidelines to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Council staff and volunteers continue to monitor the situation from a safe distance.

Communications with Council

Photo shows crews tending boom around the Solomon Gulch Hatchery, about 2 miles from the terminal. Early in the spill response, Alyeska deployed this protective boom around the hatchery and nearby Valdez Duck Flats. No oil reached either site. Both sites are particularly sensitive to oil contamination. Sensitive areas like these are identified before a spill occurs and response plans are tailored to each site. These plans save time during the critical first hours of a response.
Crews tend boom around the Solomon Gulch Hatchery, about 2 miles from the terminal. Early in the spill response, Alyeska deployed this protective boom around the hatchery and nearby Valdez Duck Flats. No oil reached either site. Both sites are particularly sensitive to oil contamination. Sensitive areas like these are identified before a spill occurs and response plans are tailored to each site. These plans save time during the critical first hours of a response. Photo by Jeremy Robida.

“While preventing oil from reaching the water is always the ultimate goal, Alyeska was proactive and responded to this incident with trained personnel and pre-contracted fishing vessels who were successful in mitigating impacts to the environment,” said Donna Schantz, executive director for the Council.

“Additionally, the Unified Command, including Alyeska as the responsible party, provided us with information and included us in meetings and updates,” she added.

“This was a great example of how we were designed to work together.”

Investigation complete

Alyeska’s investigation into the cause of the spill was completed in early July. The Council has received information regarding the investigation from Alyeska, including information about the causes and other contributing factors, and will be following up on next steps. Many sumps like this are located throughout the terminal and the Council is interested in Alyeska’s measures to prevent this type of occurrence in the future.




Technology study demonstrates importance of the Council’s independent research

Photo shows Coast Guard officer firing a messenger shot line from one Coast Guard vessel to another. This is one method of connecting tow lines between a tug and a tanker.
In this 2016 photo, a U.S. Coast Guard officer fires a messenger line from one military vessel to another. This is one method of connecting tow lines between a tug and a tanker. Photo by Pasquale Sena, U.S. Coast Guard.

A new study evaluating methods of establishing tow lines between an escort tug and a tanker in distress is a prime example of why the Council’s studies are vital.

The Council often hires experts to review equipment technology used in the Prince William Sound oil transportation industry. Sometimes these studies fill a hole or gap where independent research is lacking.

“Very little has been previously written on this topic,” said Alan Sorum, who managed this project and other similar technology reviews for the Council. “In a literature review it conducted, the Council’s contractor, Glosten, found that there is a general lack of published material on this subject and in particular, little guidance on best use practices or what is the most appropriate device to use for a given situation.”

The study looked at a specific piece of equipment called a “messenger line.” Passing a messenger line is the first step in setting up a tow line between a tug and a tanker in distress. The lighter weight messenger line helps responders connect the heavy tow lines.

Retrieving a messenger line can be difficult and dangerous in the rough weather often encountered in Prince William Sound. Depending on the vessel and the technology on board, they may be passed by hand, heaved or thrown aboard, projected by mechanical means, or picked out of the water.

Tough equipment required for Alaska’s harsh climate

Alaska has a state law that requires tankers to carry specially designed towing equipment when traveling through Prince William Sound. This equipment includes a towing wire, floating line and buoy, and a heavy-duty shackle.

These components are all specifically sized to match the weight of the vessel and be able to handle the high winds and seas often encountered in Prince William Sound.

Having this specialized equipment on hand allows rescue tugs to quickly and safely help move a stricken tanker to a safer location.

Conducting the study

Researchers reviewed what devices are commercially available for deploying messenger lines. Next, they developed criteria to evaluate the equipment according to: effectiveness, feasibility, transferability, compatibility, age and condition, availability, environmental impacts, and cost.

These eight criteria were based on another Alaska law, which requires industry to use “best available technology.” This requirement is intended to ensure that equipment meets and is maintained to a high standard.

The equipment options were each assessed and scored.

How will the Council use this information on tow lines?

The Council’s influence depends on quality, accurate research. The Council uses reports like this to help make sure advice given to industry and government officials is well-informed and supported by the best science available. The findings of this latest research effort are being shared with equipment manufacturers, the oil transportation and shipping industries, and regulators.

Read more about the researcher’s recommendations:

Tanker Towline Deployment BAT Review (10.3 MB)

Community Corner: Peer listeners build community resilience

Photo of Betsi Oliver, outreach coordinator.
Photo of Betsi Oliver
Betsi Oliver

By Betsi Oliver
Outreach Coordinator

After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, a Council project assessed the social impacts of the spill and developed resources that could be used by small communities to help with healing. An oil spill has complex and long-lasting impacts on the social and emotional health of a community, more than a natural disaster. Substance abuse, domestic violence, self-isolation, and suicide all increase as a result of stress that can be felt throughout a community. Activities that strengthen community connectedness help counteract these effects.

Mental health professionals today are making comparisons between the ongoing mental health impacts of disasters such as the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and those of COVID-19. Many of the elements that make an oil spill so challenging can also be applied to the current COVID-19 crisis, in particular the high levels of uncertainty about when the crisis will end, how long recovery will take, and whether individuals are doing the right thing in response. Like an oil spill, the pandemic will have long-lasting impacts on individual physical health, the economy, and communities’ social fabric. All of this has a cumulative impact on mental health.

After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, many people needed a friendly ear to listen to their struggles and stories with empathy. The Council sponsored creation of the Peer Listener Training, which empowers residents in our region to support each other through effective listening. In a disaster, mental health professionals are swamped and costly. In small communities, like many rural villages in Alaska, professional support may not be readily available. A neighbor who shares your culture, lifestyle, and experience may be more approachable than a professional counselor, especially for those who may not have a positive view of mental health counseling.

Trained peer listeners, unlike therapists or counselors, do not give advice and are not experts. Instead they actively listen and help their peers vent strong emotions, feel heard, and have their experiences normalized. A peer listener is connected to resources in the community and knows when to make referrals to professionals or other support systems.

The Council offers a “train the trainer” event every few years to individuals who are positioned to bring the training home to their community. Trained peer listeners increase the resilience of the Exxon Valdez oil spill region should another disaster threaten the fabric of life so deeply. One of the primary takeaways is that even a regular citizen, someone who is not a mental health expert, can make a big difference in their community. Checking in on neighbors, asking intentional questions about well-being, and listening with empathy make a big difference for connectedness and healing. These lessons apply broadly, to all disasters that impact our communities.

More: Peer listening program updated for COVID-19

From the executive director: EPA’s temporary policy limits inspections and enforcement actions

Donna Schantz
Photo of Donna Schantz
Donna Schantz

By Donna Schantz
Executive Director

In March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a temporary policy on how to handle enforcement and compliance during the COVID-19 pandemic. An April letter clarified that the policy was not intended to absolve companies of responsibility, but to allow flexibility for regulators to adapt to the unique situations presented by the pandemic.

The EPA published remarks from public officials and stakeholders in support of the temporary policy, including remarks from Jason Brune, the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, or ADEC. The commissioner’s remarks are concerning, especially the reference to regulatory bodies, including ADEC and other state and federal agencies, seeking out “gotcha” moments in the course of their duty to enforce safety requirements.

In an April 24 letter to ADEC, the Council requested a commitment that all reasonable actions to prevent accidents from occurring would be taken. The Council also requested that any temporary policies such as this one be lifted as soon as the emergency declaration has ended.

Inspections are not ‘gotcha’ moments

The Council does not believe that regulatory oversight, including monitoring, inspecting, and reporting on industry operations, are punitive ‘gotcha’ moments. We also do not think that regulatory bodies seek to unnecessarily penalize industry during normal circumstances, let alone during an emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Quote from Jason Brune: “The regulated community needs certainty that it will not fall prey to punitive ‘gotcha’ moments during this pandemic. Limiting inspections at this time is prudent as we do not want staff to be unintentional vectors for the virus to rural parts of our state that are ill-prepared to treat sick patients.”
Source: What They Are Saying: Public Officials and Stakeholders Voice Support for EPA’s Discretion Policy for COVID-19 Pandemic

Given the extreme stresses resulting from this crisis, careful consideration should be given to how issues are characterized. The Council recognizes that regulators’ discretion is necessary during these unprecedented times, however regulatory enforcement must continue, as clarified by the EPA in April.

As state and federal agencies are stretched to their maximum capabilities, the Council’s role becomes increasingly more important. These new limits on inspections are added to the many stressors already impacting the system in Prince William  Sound, such as complications related to the pandemic, the recent oil spill from the Valdez Marine Terminal, the low price of oil, and reduced budgets and staffing levels, all of which could result in diminished safeguards for oil spill prevention and response. The suggestion that the department is limiting inspections can lead to complacency for both industry and regulatory agencies, transferring the risk to the public, and increasing the possibility of a major oil spill.

The safety of personnel must be the first priority. However, regulatory agencies cannot back off from their oil spill prevention responsibilities at this critical time in Alaska’s history.

Link to ADEC guidance: COVID-19 caused Non-Compliance Concerns, No Action Assurance Memorandum


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